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Understanding Burnout

Many people encounter phases when they experience fatigue or discontent in their lives. But if your job or life induces emotional exhaustion to the extent that you no longer care or struggle to function normally, you may be experiencing burnout.

Burnout is a common problem that can impact people across various aspects of life, not limited to just the workplace. While commonly associated with work-related challenges, burnout can manifest in different environments, such as sports and education.

Left unattended, burnout can give rise to significant challenges, affecting mental and physical well-being, as well as one's ability to navigate daily life. If you've previously experienced burnout, there may be concerns about its recurrence. Fortunately, addressing burnout is possible through various approaches, whether on an individual, team, or organisational level.

What is burnout?

Everyone encounters challenging days in the workplace, and issues related to workload, role, organisation, or personal life can pose difficulties. Stress is an inherent part of work that ebbs and flows for most people. In fact, a modest amount of stress can sometimes enhance focus and peak performance.

But what if every workday feels like a constant struggle? When work-induced stress becomes overwhelming or persists over an extended period, it can lead to significant issues. 'Burnout' defines the state where the stresses of work or life leave us so depleted that performing becomes a challenge. Prolonged stress seems to extinguish our work energy, resulting in feelings of emotional exhaustion, lack of motivation, and decreased effectiveness.

Burnout isn't an overnight occurrence; it typically arises from an accumulation of stressful factors both within and sometimes outside the workplace or in life. As burnout sets in, you're likely to experience symptoms such as:

  • Experiencing fatigue and depletion — emotionally, mentally, and physically.

  • Growing more distant, disinterested, or detached from your professional or life tasks.

  • Encountering challenges in managing the demands of your job.

  • Losing enthusiasm for interactions with colleagues, customers, friends, or extracurricular activities.

  • Developing a progressively negative, cynical, or pessimistic perspective toward your work.

  • Facing difficulties in concentration, memory recall, and maintaining focus.

  • Feeling diminished productivity, enthusiasm, or effectiveness in your role.

  • Encountering issues with mood, sleep, or health, such as headaches or stomach pains.

People can undergo varying intensities of burnout. While some manage to persist with a 'mild' form of burnout, others grapple with elevated levels, hindering their ability to function normally (commonly referred to as 'severe' or 'clinical burnout'). In its most extreme manifestation, burnout can render it exceedingly challenging for one to perform any work at all.

Burnout is typically perceived as an issue associated with work rather than classified as a mental health condition. However, this distinction doesn't diminish its gravity; burnout can precipitate significant challenges in terms of health, mood, relationships, and personal life.

The repercussions of burnout can be categorised based on how it influences your thought processes, emotional states, and behavioural patterns:

Cognitive Aspects: How You Might Think

  • Questioning your capabilities or your ability to fulfil your job responsibilities.

  • Concerns about your aptitude to manage stress, meet expectations, and handle your workload.

  • Believing that the circumstances of your work are unlikely to improve.

  • Reflecting on the loss of purpose, low energy levels, and perceived lack of accomplishments at work.

  • Ruminating on instances at work where you felt ineffective, mistreated, or undervalued.

  • Contemplating strategies to disengage from your job, such as taking leaves or seeking alternative employment.

Emotional Aspects: How You Might Feel

  • Fatigued, exceedingly tired.

  • Dejected, experiencing a low mood.

  • Emotionally drained, detached, or numb.

  • Angry, resentful, or irritable.

  • Stressed, overwhelmed by pressure.

  • Disillusioned, disappointed with your work.

  • Ashamed or guilty.

  • Trapped, helpless, and powerless.

Behavioural Aspects: How You Might Act

  • Struggling to invest energy in your work.

  • Creating distance from friends, colleagues or customers.

  • Avoiding, delaying, or relinquishing tasks.

  • Reacting dismissively, critically, or insensitively towards others.

  • Losing interest in external activities or deriving less enjoyment from them.

  • Prioritising work over your own well-being, neglecting rest.

  • Absenteeism – missing work.

  • Engaging in coping mechanisms that jeopardise your health, such as alcohol use.

Observational Aspects: What You Might Pay Attention To

  • Your sense of exhaustion and depletion.

  • Negative interactions with your colleagues.

  • The perceived lack of reward and productivity in your work.

  • Discrepancies between your expectations and the realities of your work.

  • Signs of being treated unfairly or unequally.

  • Your perceived lack of success or achievements at work.

  • Comparisons between your performance and that of others.

What distinguishes stress from burnout?

While stress serves as a primary contributor to burnout, the two issues have notable differences. Stress is commonly perceived as an overwhelming sense of tension, pressure, or anxiety, causing someone to feel excessively 'full.' On the other hand, burnout is characterised by an overwhelming sense of emptiness, marked by a profound depletion of energy, motivation, or hope.

When experiencing stress:

  • Emotions are heightened - work induces a heightened sense of tension and pressure.

  • Increased activity - there is an overwhelming amount that you feel needs to be accomplished.

  • Anxious feelings - you are concerned about the extensive workload ahead.

  • Work holds a sense of significance - it's crucial for you to complete the tasks.

When experiencing burnout:

  • Emotions are dulled - you feel emotionally numb and detached at work.

  • Withdrawal becomes more prominent - you struggle to engage with your work.

  • Feelings of low mood - work leaves you with a sense of depression and hopelessness.

  • Work loses its perceived meaning - you no longer sense the importance or significance of your tasks.

Are you experiencing burnout?

Identifying burnout can be challenging, especially if you've been grappling with it for an extended period or tend to overlook your own needs. Additionally, burnout may share similarities with depression, although depression constitutes a distinct issue requiring a different form of treatment.

Responding to the questions below can provide insight into whether you might be burnt out.

  • Does your work consistently leave you feeling fatigued?

  • Have you witnessed a decline in the energy and enthusiasm you once had for your job?

  • Do you occasionally exhibit an attitude of indifference, disinterest, or insensitivity at work?

  • Have you noticed a diminishing level of concern for your clients or colleagues?

  • Do you believe that your efforts at work no longer make a meaningful difference?

  • Are you grappling with feelings of frustration, disappointment, or disillusionment regarding your job?

  • Are you neglecting your own well-being, such as not taking adequate time to rest, eat, or exercise?

  • Have your family, friends, or colleagues observed a change in your character?

If your responses lean toward 'yes' for most of these questions, you may be contending with burnout. It could be beneficial to discuss your feelings with your family doctor or a mental health professional.

What leads to burnout?

Burnout is a complex problem without a single root cause, yet several factors can heighten the likelihood of its occurrence:

Occupational Factors: The work environment is a pivotal factor in burnout. Elements like a demanding workload, extended working hours, and limited job control contribute to an elevated risk. Additionally, conflicting or ambiguous roles, a sense of inadequate support, and a lack of feedback can all contribute. Professions with a pronounced people-oriented focus, such as teaching and healthcare, are particularly susceptible to severe burnout, although its relevance spans various job types.

Personal Life Influences: External challenges outside the workplace can amplify the risk of burnout. Struggles with relationships, financial worries, caregiving responsibilities for family members, and conflicts between work and family commitments may exacerbate the condition.

Individual Traits: Certain personality traits correlate with an increased risk of burnout. People who find it challenging to cope with stress, harbour self-doubt or feelings of incompetence, and tend to experience more negative emotions than positive ones are more susceptible.

Beliefs and Attitudes: Research indicates that personal beliefs about oneself and one's work can impact burnout. For example, beliefs centered around the necessity to meet exceptionally high personal standards, such as perfectionism, have been linked to burnout in studies involving trainee therapists.

Genetic Considerations: While evidence suggests a genetic predisposition to emotional problems, including burnout, the influence of individual experiences within and around the workplace is likely to be more substantial.

What keeps burnout going?

Burnout, viewed through multiple lenses as an individual, organisational, or societal challenge, presents various avenues for support. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has shown efficacy in treating burnout, focusing on disrupting sustaining factors rather than solely identifying its origins.

CBT models highlight several elements that maintain burnout:

Stressful Work Environment: Burnout thrives in highly stressful workplaces due to factors like excessive demands, role conflicts, interpersonal issues, or a misalignment between expectations and reality. Unaddressed issues accumulate stress, leading to burnout. Exhaustion may hinder addressing workplace problems, risking resignation to an unsatisfactory situation unless proactive changes are made.

Inability to Recharge: Burnout obstructs activities crucial for recharging beyond rest, preventing engagement in pleasurable, productive, and purposeful pursuits. A self-reinforcing cycle emerges: heightened exhaustion limits recuperation opportunities, exacerbating burnout over time.

Maladaptive Coping Mechanisms: Coping strategies, like emotional detachment or avoidance, can become part of the problem, fostering a cycle of demoralisation, fatigue, and reliance on these strategies.

Negative Self-Perceptions and Thoughts: Burnout triggers negative thought patterns, including worry, rumination, and self-criticism. These repetitive thoughts exacerbate exhaustion, impeding recuperation.

Addressing burnout involves disrupting these sustaining factors, emphasising proactive changes in coping mechanisms, promoting a supportive work environment, and challenging negative thought patterns.

Psychological Interventions for Burnout

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) emerges as a beneficial approach for individuals experiencing burnout. CBT, a widely embraced form of talk therapy, stands out for its structured nature. Following an initial discussion to comprehensively understand your concerns, both you and your therapist collaboratively establish goals for your sessions. Each session typically begins with setting an agenda, ensuring mutual agreement on the focus areas.

Key elements of effective CBT for burnout encompass:

Assessment and Monitoring: Systematically evaluating and tracking the specific burnout symptoms you are contending with.

Formulating Shared Understanding: Developing a mutual understanding, often depicted as a 'formulation' diagram, to discern the factors perpetuating your burnout.

Stress and Burnout Causes: Delving into the roots of stress and burnout, unraveling their causes.

Lifestyle Considerations: Addressing lifestyle elements that might contribute to burnout, such as sleep patterns, exercise, and alcohol consumption.

Negative Thought Patterns: Confronting and challenging negative thoughts and beliefs that contribute to burnout.

Skill Development: Acquiring new work-related skills, including communication, time management, and conflict resolution.

Progress Maintenance Plan: Creating a strategic plan to sustain progress and prevent setbacks in the future.

Relaxation Techniques: Developing personalised methods for relaxation.

Leisure Activities: Incorporating enjoyable leisure activities that facilitate recovery and rejuvenation.


Tackling burnout involves considering its various aspects and utilising effective strategies. Psychological treatments, especially Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), offer practical help. CBT's structured approach covers assessment, understanding causes, lifestyle adjustments, and skill-building, providing a well-rounded solution. It's crucial to work with an experienced therapist. Additionally, incorporating relaxation techniques, enjoyable activities, and a plan to maintain progress can contribute to a comprehensive approach in managing and preventing burnout. Addressing burnout requires a tailored and thoughtful approach that considers individual needs and the broader context of work and life.


Sally Edwards

Fully qualified counsellor, psychotherapist and trauma therapist based in Orpington, Kent

Face-to-face in person or online counselling

My specialism is on the impacts of trauma, from events such as childhood neglect, childhood sexual abuse, sexual assault and rape, domestic and emotional abuse, accidents, violence, serious illness, and financial trauma (redundancy and bankruptcy). But I work with clients with many other life challenges and emotional difficulties, such as depression, anxiety, OCD behaviours, PTSD, self-harm, and eating issues.

I am easily accessible from local areas near me including Orpington, Bromley, Chislehurst, Petts Wood, Sidcup, Beckenham, Sevenoaks, Tonbridge, Knockholt, Biggin Hill, West Wickham, Chelsfield, Swanley and Bexley

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